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Playground legend ‘Bone Collector’ brings his talent back to Japan

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Streetball fanatics revel with delight when rattling off names of legends who competed at New York’s famed Rucker Park in the 20th century.

Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earl “The Goat” Manigault, Joe “The Destroyer” Hammond, Connie “The Hawk” Hawkins, Herman “Helicopter” Knowlings and James “Fly” Williams are among the Rucker’s most prominent alumni.

And there’s also Larry “Bone Collector” Williams, who visited Kansai earlier this month to teach the game he’s loved since his earliest years.

They don’t call him Bone Collector for no reason. He earned it with a stunning display of athleticism and basketball skills at the Harlem landmark in Manhattan during the Entertainers Basketball Classic 15 years ago.

Listen to his explanation of the unforgettable moniker’s origin:

“The first time I came to New York I played in a game and I made someone fall, and they hit their back on the ground and on the gate, and the paramedics came and picked him up,” the Williams told Hoop Scoop by phone after having breakfast on a recent morning in Los Angeles.

“The second game I threw the ball between someone’s legs and they reached down and broke their finger.

“And then the third game a guy was guarding me full court and I did a move and his hamstring seized up on him, so the paramedics took him off the court.

“So the paramedics used to just park outside the park in case I would make somebody kind of get injured.”

So, to sum up, here’s a brief recap: Not only did Williams exploit defenders’ weaknesses due to his impressive skills, he also inadvertently sidelined them with various injuries and ailments.

“A friend of mine (David Sills, aka ‘The Enigma’) said, ‘Man, I have the perfect name for you, the Bone Collector, and we went to the park the next day and he told the announcer, ‘Man, you should call him the Bone Collector,’ and ever since that day (it’s stuck),” Williams recounted.

The rest is history.

His catchy nickname grabbed attention against household names, too, in the Big Apple. Exhibit A: Williams squared off against well-traveled NBA guard Jamaal Tinsley at the Rucker.

“They were calling me the Bone Collector,” he stated proudly, “in that game and that name has traveled ever since.”

When?

Williams was only 21 years old when this happened.

Tinsley didn’t respond to an email inquiry before press time. Hoop Scoop sought more details.

Yet in his own way, Williams, now 36, has cemented a place among the upper echelon of streetball legends.

So what did it feel like to receive a catchy, unique nickname?

“At the time I would say that I was in a whirlpool of just experiencing New York basketball,” he said, “so it didn’t hit me until I went to other cities and other boroughs in New York and I would see crowds of people standing around to see the Bone Collector play.”

Sometimes, timing is everything. A 1999 movie “The Bone Collector,” a crime drama starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, kept that phrase fresh among the general public, too.

“The buzz of both of those things kept it to where it was at a high level,” Williams told me. “And then my performance took it to another level, and the feeling behind it was just incredible, and even to this day … that name has created business opportunities for me and my family.”

***

Williams keeps busy working as a personal trainer for high school students, college players and NBA players, with camps and clinics throughout Los Angeles.

International tour dates (exhibition games) also dot his schedule as well as clinics and camps around the globe.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate at the moment,” he admitted.

Bone Collector estimates he’s visited 30 countries, but said he “lost track” after a decade and a half of extensive travels.

He’s entered and exited so many airports that he’s run out of pages to have his passport stamped. Multiple times. (He now carries his third passport around.)

And he’ll hit the road again soon. To China.

But before he does, he took time to reflect on the special opportunity to interact with local youth and help plant the seeds for basketball’s next generation of players in Japan.

And by doing so, he beamed with pride about reaching out and inspiring a few players among the larger group.

“The age groups varied from 5 and up,” he noted, “and we had a handful of students that I chose at the end of each session with all that big group, and we give them special T-shirts and at the end of it all we do an All-Star game just combined of all the best students there. So literally there were about 15-20 kids that really, really honed in on the things that I was teaching them. … And you got some guys that were so adamant on learning from me that they mimic you by the way you dress.”

With his patented do-rag on his head whenever he plays, Bone Collector stands out because of his appearance, too.

The look caught on in Osaka and Kobe.

“There was a kid (about 14 years old) there and he came with the same thing that I had on, and he was just so adamant on learning from me. He was all ears,” Williams said of his time in Kansai.

He added: “A movement in itself is only as good as you make it once that person approaches you with a question, and I’m all ears when it comes to what people want to know. But the fact that they were idolizing the situation … and when I was able to put those things into his game, obviously it’s going to carry more with him for the rest of his career. …”

In recent months, Bone Collector traveled to Australia and France for basketball clinics, including exhibition games Down Under. He has upcoming trips planned to Africa and elsewhere.

The latest stop in Kansai also helped solidify his plans to come back for additional clinics in the near future, said Williams, who received an invitation here from local promoter Zentetsu Kanai, a former Miyazaki Shining Suns player.

The China visit, his second annual ball handling clinic there, primarily Shanghai and some other cities, from July to late August, could feature up to 1,500 to 2,000 youth, he predicted after around 1,000 participated last year.

***

During his recent four days of clinics, with other days set aside to “adapt to the culture of Japan,” Williams spent time working with an estimated 700-800 kids, ranging from 5 years old to high-school age, with clinics in Osaka and Kobe.

“It was a great turnout,” he said.

The sessions generally lasted two hours, with four on the schedule each day. Some sessions were held twice a day.

Williams set up one-on-one drills at various stations on the court.

Through his work, he’s gained valuable experience providing pointers to large groups and also as a personal trainer, he mentioned, to NBA players over the years, including Shaquille O’Neal and Kyrie Irving.

“I have a program that I automatically set up and it’s set up in stations,” he explained. “That way I can detail the kids’ progress. So let’s say each session was close to 200 kids per session, we had a big enough court where I could separate them … so I would just set up the drills, and have them start the process of the drill, keep the whistle going on a certain pace, and then I’d step into each group, and then kind of detail what they should be doing and why they should be doing it — the intensity behind it and corrections.”

Even though Williams is a supremely gifted athlete, he emphasizes to every student that repetition and the hard work is needed to master the games.

“You have to log in the hours,” he told me. “It took me 30 years to get as good as I am.”

Bone Collector recalled first playing basketball at age 5, and it didn’t take him long to recognize that he had a unique gift for the game.

“My dad used to take me to play basketball with him against adults when I was 7, and I was nervous, but I was good … and I used to get crowds of people stand around me and watch me play when I was little,” he said.

His father encouraged him to work on his game, telling him that the time he invested in practicing his craft would pay off. “And I started to work from there,” he remembered.

Father and son honed their skills on a daily basis at numerous gyms around Los Angeles.

“He took me everywhere,” Williams said. “And he played so much that it was a ritual. Every day we’d play basketball, but every Sunday he would take me to the big parks, where the older guys and the better guys were to test out what I’d been working on all week. We did that until I was 16, 17…”

Above all, Bone Collector’s father planted the seeds for his lifelong love affair with basketball.

“My dad used to play me one-on-one at Villa-Parke (Community Center) in Pasadena and cut me no slack,” he wrote in a recent post on Facebook. “It made me an animal, so it’s only right I return the favor to the kids around the world.”

***

Williams also made a memorable visit to Japan during a 2009 AND1 Tour stop, which also included Osaka.

He described those games as a mission “to sort of bring out with the old, in with the new.”

During his recent visit, when he ran the Bone Collector Skill Camp Japan, nostalgia brought back positive memories when Japanese organizers showed him video highlights of the ’09 tournament finale here.

“That blew my mind that it was still so fresh to them after all those years,” Bone Collector revealed. “So that was a shocker. That was, like, one of those moments where you understand the impact and the reach that you have when you do something and you’re passionate about it. It really made sense to them why I was there.”

While the Harlem Globetrotters are best known for their prolific touring in all corners of the globe for decades as ambassadors of the sport, Williams maintains a remarkably busy schedule as described above.

***

What makes Bone Collector a one-of-a-kind player?

Legendary basketball scribe Peter Vecsey summed up what it’s like watching Williams at the height of his powers this way: ” I saw Bone Collector go up against Tinsley and Baron Davis at Rucker Playground. Saw him with AND1. Uniquely gifted. Could get around (late, legendary Harlem Globetrotter) Marques Haynes in a hallway, and make him trip. … His handle is sick.”

Those who’ve studied and taught the game for decades understand that Larry Williams has extraordinary abilities.

Vecsey’s son, Joseph, a comedian and former streetball player, recalled with awe what Bone Collector could accomplish, saying he feels that the latter has (had) “the speed, for sure, the strength and the stamina to compete with just about anyone.”

Underscoring this point, Joseph Vecsey remembered seeing Bone Collector “dribble and disorient tons of players, yawn in their faces, do a hesitation move and then blow past them for a layup … saw him shoot the sh— out of the ball, and then, one day, suddenly, he rose and dunked viciously.”

From his legend-defining visits to the Entertainers Basketball Classic at the Rucker, he made mesmerizing moves against a who’s who of elite talent, including Allen Iverson, Tinsley, Larry Hughes, Baron Davis and Rafer Alston. And here’s what Joseph Vecsey remembered in an email to Hoop Scoop: “(When) I really think about it, Bone’s style of play was of course so different from the NBA, but I think he could’ve played in the league for the simple fact that he was unguardable. I really don’t think anyone can guard him. The best handle of all time.”

Looking back at his organized playing days, one longtime coach I reached out to saw a special skill set and determination guiding Bone Collector on the court.

“Larry is a unique person as well as a player,” former NBA coach Don Casey, who supervised Bone Collector during a stint coaching the ABA’s Hollywood Fame, told Hoop Scoop. “(He) fought his way through the street world to the real world.”

Casey described Williams as “determined and hard-working … loyal, and not fast, but quick.”

Of his preternatural talent, Casey put it this way: “I am sure there are others that may indulge on one-on-one, but I have not seen or been told about any on any level to compare or compete with Sir Larry.”

Indeed in their time together, the 183-cm Bone Collector made a lasting impression.

“Well he was new to me as an individual player,” the veteran coach revealed. “I may have impeded him with set plays, but he, on his own, created situations to expose and explode his skills. Good team player.”

Remembering his time with Casey’s team during the 2006-07 season, Bone Collector, who suited up for Manhattan-based junior college Globe Institute of Technology for a season several years earlier, remembered appearing in the playoffs and competing with former Utah Jazz standout Bryon Russell and other NBA alumni.

“That experience was excellent,” Williams said. “And coming from a great NBA coach — and we’re still good friends to this day — he tightened up some of the things in my game that I didn’t understand, and I am a student of the game. But it was a great experience to know that an NBA-caliber coach saw my potential and knew that I was able to do so…”

Shortly thereafter, his improved game helped lead to a tryout for a roster spot with the Orlando Magic, but an injury derailed his chances of making the team.

For years, he’s also maintained a big following among those who pay close attention to streetball. (For instance, popular former bj-league player John “Helicopter” Humphrey spoke with Bone Collector this week, and he has met Takuya Okada, general manager of the Shizuoka Gymrats, a traveling squad that has played in the ABA, many times.)

***

Hard work and a flair for run are the key elements of Bone Collector’s approach to the game.

“I am an entertaining guard,” the Bone Collector declared, “and all of my attributes come from the way I handle the ball. I consider myself the best ball handler of all time. So the moves that I do are unique, flashy and at the same time they are powerful and I’m also very, very adamant on my ability to perform at any level, whether it’s NBA, professional or streetball.

“I embody every piece of the game from what I’ve learned, and if someone wants to watch and see and take a look at me playing, the one thing they get from it is … ‘that guy can really handle the ball.’ ”

Asked if his hands are uncommonly big, strong or flexible or if he has exceptional hand-eye coordination, Williams offered this insight: “Other than God-given talent, the thing that makes that feasible for the court is I have great hand-eye coordination and also I have an incredible tolerance for repetition. So I will work on the same thing until I master it.

“So mastering a craft is the way I put it together, and there’s no trick to it. I don’t have very big hands.”

But he compensates for that by working to strengthen his body and take care of it.

“I’m very creative and I kind of overthink the scenario,” he went on. “I also plan for the second and third move. I never think about the immediate and I adapt. My game is an actual adaption. I adapt to every scenario and I use those things as my attributes, and then I have a few moves that are just in general lethal combination moves and they are hard to figure out because of my streetball criteria and my background, they are unorthodox to the average player, so they won’t react to them the same way and then I combine that with the professional outlook.”

The bottom line, he said, is this: “With all that combined, it makes it really, really difficult for a person to slow me down or even stay in front of me, and I bring that every time I play.”

Studying grainy film of old boxers, I pointed out, was a key for Mike Tyson in his early years in the fight game. On a similar level, I wanted to know if Bone Collector found similar benefits by watching old Globetrotters games.

He took a different path. Karate and martial arts films provided enlightening lessons.

Why?

“I realized,” Williams said, “that one of my favorite martial artists was Bruce Lee.

“I realized everything he did was a counter, so I incorporated that into my game. … When I speak of adapting, I wanted to be able to adapt to a person’s defense according to how they reacted to my offense. So it was a cat-and-mouse game for me just watching martial arts.”

***

Fellow streetball legend Grayson “The Professor” Boucher is one of Williams’ best friends. Their tight bond is akin to two brothers. They converse nearly every day.

“And we brainstorm and we bounce ideas back and forth,” Bone Collector pointed out. “We’re working on a nationwide tour. The nationwide tour will be under the moniker ‘Global Hoopers’ and kind of come out and revamp the (AND1) Mixtape Tour, but we’ll do it according to the way we see it.”

That bond goes beyond the court.

After Williams was baptized about four years ago, it transformed their friendship.

“Our Christian faith made us even closer,” he said, “because now we have the same perspective on life. We see things in the bigger picture. We do God’s thing, not our own. It brought us so much closer…”

On further reflection, he added: “My story is really uplifting because I had some trouble (with the law) when I was younger and I completely changed my life around by dedicating myself to God, my craft and mentoring kids around the world.”

After his playing days, Bone Collector envisions spending more time in his ministry to tell others about his faith while also studying to become a character animator.

Williams’ knack for drawing and sketching first showed up when he was 5, he said. This now includes comic-book illustrations using pens and markers.

More than many, Bone Collector’s artistic passions define him. For decades, a basketball became his greatest prop, any court his greatest canvas.

Stay tuned. There’s more to come.

Feedback: edward.odeven@japantimes.co.jp